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Mary Persons senior Rico Harden broke free from a Jackson defender and continued 41 yards for a game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left to give MP a memorable 36-29 home victory over the Red Devils at Dan Pitts Stadium on Friday. (Photo/Kim Holderfield)

The Mary Persons Bulldogs achieved one of their most memorable wins in recent history with a 36-29 victory over rival Jackson at Dan Pitts Stadium on Friday.

In a heart-stopping, instant classic, the Bulldogs prevailed on a 41-yard, fourth-down touchdown run by senior superstar Rico Harden, narrowly holding off an improbable Jackson second-half comeback in the 77th edition of the Backyard Brawl. MP led 29-7 late in the third quarter before a furious Jackson rally resulted in 22 straight points and a 29-29 tie. MP got the ball back with 4:59 to play and converted a pair of first downs by the nose of the football before Harden’s heroics sent a capacity Mitchell Field crowd into hysterics.

The Bulldogs won despite the Red Devils running 33 more plays from scrimmage than MP (71 to 38), dominating in first downs 19 to 5 and edging MP in total yardage 387 to 343.

But it was Harden’s brilliance that kept the Bulldogs in front for most of the night. The senior tailback, who also played nearly every snap on defense and special teams, overcame late game calf cramps to rush for a team-high 149 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. He was also MP’s leading receiver with four receptions for 85 yards, including a 77-yard TD.

Friday’s win came one week after the Bulldogs lost 27-21 at Gainesville in their season opener, getting dominated at the line of scrimmage in the process. MP head coach Brian Nelson said he knew that his Bulldogs would respond admirably.

“I did something last week after that game that I’ve never done,” Nelson said. “I usually just let them sit around, and I talk as they’re getting undressed or whatever. But I lined everyone up. Everybody had to be in front of me. I wanted to see everybody’s eyes. I said, ‘This is our plan, and this is what we’re gonna do. And we’ve gotta keep getting better.’ They bought into it, and we had a great week of practice. Everybody’s attitude was great. Their focus was great. And they bought into the fact that this team is just gonna have to keep getting better. Does that always mean you’re gonna win? No, but we’ve just gotta keep showing marked improvement. For the most part tonight I thought we looked like a better team than we did last Friday night.”

The Bulldogs certainly looked like a better team in the early going against Jackson, outscoring the Red Devils 19-0 in a dominant first quarter. MP went three-and-out on its opening drive, but Trippe Moore’s punt was muffed by the Red Devils and recovered by MP’s Dennis Swain at the Red Devils’ 45-yard-line, enabling the Bulldogs to keep possession. Three plays later, MP found the end zone for the first time when Harden burst up the middle, jump cut to his left to elude the Red Devils’ free safety and smoothly glided across the goal line for a 26-yard TD. Julian Rivera’s extra point try doinked off the right post, so the Dogs took a 6-0 lead with 8:44 left in the first period. After a Jackson punt, MP started at its own 20-yard-line, and it took just one play for the Dogs to add to their lead. Quarterback Malikk Harris handed off to backup tailback William Stewart on a draw to the left. Stewart exploded through a hole on the left side and sprinted away from Jackson’s secondary for an 80-yard touchdown run with 6:21 left in the first quarter. Harris’ two-point pass attempt was thrown errantly out of bounds, and the Bulldogs maintained a 12-0 lead.

With quarterback Josh Scott and running back Alex Patrick alternating taking snaps, the Red Devils mounted a 12-play drive into the Bulldogs’ red zone on Jackson’s ensuing possession. However, the Bulldogs held the Red Devils scoreless when running back Jalen Medlock fumbled at MP’s 12-yard-line, and the ball was scooped up by MP’s Adrian Hughley and run back 10 yards. Three plays later, MP added to its advantage when Harris connected on a throwback screen pass to Harden in the left flat on the final play of the first quarter. The senior tailback turned on the jets and split a pair of Jackson defensive backs en route to a 77-yard touchdown, the first TD pass of Harris’ brief MP career. Rivera’s extra point put MP ahead 19-0 heading into the second period.

Jackson’s offense held onto the ball on the Red Devils’ next possession, marching 80 yards on 13 plays while eating up 6:04 of clock, a theme that continued over the course of the game. Patrick, alternating between quarterback and running back, rushed seven times on the drive for a total of 47 yards, capping the series with a two-yard TD run up the gut off of a direct snap. An extra point narrowed MP’s lead to 19-7 with 5:56 left in the second quarter.

Both teams went three-and-out on their next series before the Bulldogs’ offense made its most critical miscue of the contest. Harris fumbled on a third-and-long run, and the ball was recovered by Jackson’s Trey Butler at the Dogs’ 24-yard-line with 1:57 left before halftime. However, MP’s defense held and forced a field goal try, and Harden, seemingly doing everything, blocked the 30-yard attempt with 49 seconds left in the half to preserve a 19-7 Bulldogs’ lead through two quarters.

Getting the ball to start the second half, Jackson looked to cut into MP’s lead, but Dogs’ senior linebacker Wyatt Currie sacked Scott on third down to force a punt. Three plays later, Harden took a draw to the left and ran for 50 yards with his quarterback, Harris, lead blocking down field. But Jackson’s defense stiffened in the red zone, and MP settled for a 33-yard Rivera field goal to stake the Dogs to a 22-7 lead with 5:55 left in the third quarter.

Things got worse for Jackson on its next possession. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Patrick fumbled, and MP linebacker Andre Jackson, making his first start on defense, recovered the loose ball amidst a swarm of jerseys and returned the fumble 42 yards for a Bulldog touchdown. Rivera’s point-after put MP in front 29-7 with 4:14 left in the third quarter, and it momentarily appeared a third consecutive Backyard Brawl rout was on.

But with the two squads more evenly matched this time around, the Bulldogs were unable to pull away. Mixing in Scott’s passing with Patrick’s running, the Red Devils marched 57 yards on seven plays, capped by another two-yard TD run up the middle by Patrick to pull the Red Devils to within 15 at 29-14, following the extra point with 2:05 left in the third period.

After an MP three-and-out, Jackson’s offense went back to work terrorizing a tiring Dogs’ defense. Scott hooked up with favorite target Anthony Henderson for 36 yards on the first play of the drive. Five plays later, he found burly tight end Dylan Cody on a 23-yard pass just inside the right sideline to move the Red Devils into the MP red zone. Moments later, Patrick ran a Wildcat draw to the right, bounced it out and followed his blockers into the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown to cap a 9-play, 92-yard drive. An extra point with 7:58 left in the game narrowed the Red Devils’ deficit to eight at 29-21 and caused MP fans to worry for the first time.

Jackson head coach Dary Myricks, seeking his first win over MP, then got aggressive and called for an onside kick, which was recovered by the Red Devils at MP’s 45-yard-line. Medlock ran through a tackle to pick up a key first down early in the drive and four plays later, Patrick scored his fourth rushing TD of the night, waiting patiently behind his blockers before cutting left for the score to pull Jackson to within two points at 29-27. Needing a two-point conversion, the Red Devils turned to arguably their best athlete, Henderson, who ran toward the front left pylon, where he was contacted at the goal line by Hughley. However, Henderson’s size and momentum enabled him to dive across the plane for a successful conversion to even the contest at 29-all with 5:04 left to play.

Starting at its own 29-yard-line, MP’s offense, which had run just 28 plays and had only three first downs up to that point, had one final chance to win the game in regulation. Facing 3rd-and-7 at MP’s own 32-yard-line, Harris rolled left before reversing field and finding Currie along the right sideline at the first down marker. After MP was determined to have gained the first down by the nose of the ball, the Bulldogs found themselves backed up again on 3rd-and-8 at MP’s 41-yard-line. This time, Harris threw a screen pass in the flat to Harden, who scampered exactly eight yards, and MP again converted by the nose of the ball just shy of midfield. After three runs netted a total of nine yards, MP again faced a 4th-and-1, this time just short of Jackson’s 41-yard-line with 29 seconds to play.

The Bulldogs turned to Harden on the season’s biggest play to date. He took a handoff right before cutting back left and running through an arm tackle into the open field. Instead of settling for getting into field goal range, Harden kept going all the way to the end zone for a most unlikely 41-yard touchdown. Rivera’s extra point with 19 seconds left gave MP a 36-29 lead.

Harden, who reportedly demanded the ball in the huddle prior to his game-winning score, said of his instantly-famous run: “It was crazy. I believed in my linemen though. When I got the first down I was still on my feet. And when I realized I was still on my feet, I just kept running and they couldn’t stop me.”

But the game was not quite over. Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff just past midfield, where Harden’s younger brother Kelvin tracked him down from behind just before he could find daylight. Two plays later, Scott threw a long Hail Mary pass toward the end zone that was batted down at the 10-yard-line by Harris, moonlighting at defensive back, to end the game.

MP outrushed Jackson 246 to 243 despite a legendary night by Patrick, who gained 165 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries. Jackson’s Scott threw for 144 yards on 10 of 18 attempts while Harris, playing the whole game at QB after splitting time with freshman Logan Hickman against Gainesville, was an efficient 6 of 7 for 97 passing yards for MP. Henderson had a banner night at receiver for the Red Devils, catching a game-high seven passes for 105 yards.

On defense, Jackson was the game’s shining star for MP, amassing a team-high 12 tackles (10 solo), including a sack, while returning a fumble for a score. Nelson said Jackson’s insertion into the starting lineup at middle linebacker was a catalyst for MP’s improved defensive play.

“It was pretty big,” Nelson said. “I don’t think we played real well there last week. . . We sat Andre down. He’s a senior. He’s a leader of this team. He’s a Mary Persons guy, and he’s one of the only returning starters we’ve got coming back on offense from last year. And we’re like, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna need you to come over and play some linebacker.’ He said, ‘Whatever you need me to do.’ He scooped and scored and probably had 10 tackles. He’s one of our better football players.”

Nelson appeared more fired up following Friday’s win than in any of MP’s blowout victories during a 12-game winning streak in 2018. He said it was MP’s resilience in regrouping after an ugly season-opening loss that brought him joy.

“This team is going to have to work for everything that it gets and to see those kids do it,” Nelson said. “The ebbs and flows of the game. We were up. Everything looks good. They come back. We’ve got to do something. Just seeing these kids kind of grow up a little bit right in front of your face and in front of your eyes. Just the way they fought. I don’t think it’s any secret that last Friday night was one of our worser [sic] performances in the eight years I’ve been the head coach. I said, ‘So let’s get better. Let’s put a better product out there.’ And the kids buying into it and doing it. The excitement on their faces when you win a football game. This is the first time they’ve done that as a 2019 team, as a group. And they put the work in for it, so I’m just excited and proud.”